CLUBHOUSE: Review: On Spec Magazine #127

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #127, Vol. 34 No. 1.

Publisher: The Copper Pig Writer’s Society. Managing Editor and Art Director: Diane L. Walton.

Issue Designer: Jerry LePage. Poetry Editors: Celine Low & Colleen Anderson.

Fiction Editors: Barb Galler-Smith, Virginia O’Dine, Constantine Kaoukakis, Susan MacGregor, Ann Marston, Krystle McGraith, A.J. Wells, Diane L. Walton, Dan Gyoba, Ethan Zou, Alyssa Kulchisky, Celine Low, Lareina Abbott, Cheryl Merkel, Jade Mah-Vierling Asly Alton, Jessica Zdril, & Thomas Schwarz.

Cover Art: Rider – by Robert Pasternak


Cleaning House – by Jeb Gaudet


Having been ill for a few days, unable to clean, peter knows that dust and dirt has taken over the house. What will it take to make it clean again?


A modern fairy tale straight out of the original Brothers Grimm. Not a hint of Disneyesque bowdlerization. Essentially a nightmare of morbid obsession come true. Peter makes Howard Hughes seem normal and healthy, but that’s not really fair, because Howie had a phobia about things he couldn’t see, whereas Peter…

The story makes me wonder if youthful bachelorhood housekeeping is merely a survival technique based on an instinctive understanding that resisting the inevitable only makes things worse. On the other hand, how long can denial work? Sooner or later, one must do something.

To me the story is a parody of commercial advertising in that it echoes and exaggerates the dire peril one can only ward off by buying this or that household cleanser or soap. Or perhaps it is a parody of the obsessive paranoia such advertising seeks to exploit. Either way, it suggests paying too much attention to detail can be a very bad thing indeed.

An unusual and disturbing story, cleverly based on the mild household-chore phobia we all contain and prefer not to feed. The stuff of nightmares.

Better Luck Next Time – by Andrew Rucker Jones


Perpetual reincarnation based on Karma. Not as much fun as it sounds.


At least Parvis and Latika share the reincarnation cycle together and are able to communicate. Life is very much an ongoing thing, yet never repetitious. Eventually this begins to be a bit of a problem. Looking forward to multiple lives is one thing. Multiple deaths, not so much. Begins to get on one’s nerves after a while. Latika is a bit of a tease. She claims to know what it’s all about but insists Parvis figure it out for himself. He’s starting to get peeved.

Some people regret spending (wasting) their life with their partner. You think that’s bad? Try multiple lives. Many touches of humour throughout, but also some serious philosophical questions lurking beneath the surface. Thought-provoking and original story.

What is the meaning of life? I know the answer but I’m not telling. I guess I’m a bit like Latika.

The Cosmic Cartographer – (poem) by Swati Chavda


Hard to steer by a star that may or may not exist.


A capsule review of the state of cosmology as determined by past and current understanding of the laws of physics. A very apt summation, leaving me to believe we are lucky to be so knowledgeable/ignorant. Despite our confusion, we are justified in feeling awe.

The Other Half – by Cale Plett


They say a child died in the church when it burned. That’s not even the half of it.


A bunch of teenagers in a small town like to hang out in the ruins of the church. No one else ever goes there. One cold winter day they accidently find a way into part of the cellar that is still intact. All but one enter to see if they could adopt the room as a clubhouse. Bad idea, especially for the girl standing outside.

To some extent the story follows a standard pattern: unspeakable horror manifest, what can be learned from those who witnessed the original event, is being armed with accurate knowledge sufficient? But the devil is in the details and the details amount to a fresh approach to a particular supernatural problem which is way worse than a mere haunting. I don’t belief in ghosts, but I don’t hang around graveyards either. Hedging my bets. Believe in being safe.

This story is very good in expressing certain subtle aspects of fear and terror that don’t often spring to mind. Reminds me my policy of staying clear of things I don’t believe in is a darn good idea.

Dying of the Light – (Poem) by Colleen Anderson


Nuclear winter not much fun.


Something of a revelation in that myth may be rendered real after the apocalypse and survival dictates knowing how to take advantage of what was not meant to be when the opportunity arises. You’re going to have to be even tougher than you anticipated.

In Exchange – by Shih-Li Kow


In the near future, will body transplants be considered practical or criminal?


The thirty-five years of the Mineral Wars are over. The man in charge of giving youthful bodies to experienced soldiers writes to his opposite number on the other side now that peace reigns. He assumes a commonality of motivation, patriotism, and expertise. He has a favour to ask. The response surprises him.

This is a quiet, almost gentle, treatment of a can of worms as perceived by a civilized man who has come to terms with his role during the war. What he did was expedient, practical, and useful. Justification enough in wartime. Perhaps. But nothing is simple. There are complexities, not to mention variation in methods, which greatly aid rationalization, leading to praise for one’s own and condemnation of the other.

Puts me in mind of Grössadmiral Karl Donitz. He was sentenced to a prison term at the Nuremberg trial, yes, but not for anything his U-boats did. Why? Because the activities of the U-boats (the bad guys) in the Atlantic were identical to the function of the American submariners (the good guys) in the Pacific. Both sank an enormous tonnage of shipping from fishing smacks to ocean liners. Whether good or evil entirely in the eye of the beholder as dictated by propaganda, but always pure hell for the victims trapped inside the sinking ship. A point the US military did not want brought to public attention so soon after the war. Lucky for Donitz, since many wanted him to hang, but they didn’t get their way.

Nevertheless, in general one man’s heroic struggle is another man’s war crime. To be sure, some war crimes, such as the medical experiments of Dr. Mengele, are unspeakably obvious. Others are defined by propaganda. For instance, in allied propaganda dropping bombs on Warsaw, Rotterdam and London was bad, but flattening Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo was good. However, again, it was pure hell for all the victims regardless of nationality.

This story is a case study of the can of worms a moral and ethical stance on war offers. Is there such a thing as a just war? And even if there is, isn’t it a case that propaganda inevitably aids the good guys’ fall from grace? Along the lines of “I’m not bad. It’s just that sometimes I have to do bad things for the greater good.”

To me “In Exchange” is Zen-like in its capacity to stir quiet, rational contemplation of the “value” of war as perceived by its participants. In my opinion Shih-Li Kow has written a story offering no easy answers but plenty of important questions. Quiet, but powerful. I’m impressed.

Frozen Charlotte – by KT Wagner


A country estate owned by a man who hates its secrets.


Given that H.P. Lovecraft defined himself as the last practitioner of Gothic Romance, I’m tempted to call this story Lovecraftian. Certainly, it has nothing to do with the genre he invented, Cosmic Terror; instead, it reflects the tradition he most held dear, supernatural horror. What does that involve? Castle or mansion. Strained, dysfunctional family relations. That of which no one speaks. A brooding ambience. Odd servants. A growing sense of dread. And something weird. This story has all that and more.

Motivated by anger and frustration, a young girl is obsessed with solving the mystery of why her father ignores both her and her younger half-sister. It takes years to discover the answer which, from the reader’s perspective, is unexpected and eerily satisfying. I do believe Lovecraft would have loved this story.

P.S. I repeat, nothing to do with cosmic terror. Not a tentacle in sight. All to do with an engaging twist on what the supernatural can offer.

Salvation of the Innocents – by Karl El-Koura


What if time travellers routinely exploit King Herod’s infamous purge of newborn boys?


A common trope regarding time travel is to go back and kill someone like Hitler at an early stage in his life before he harms the human race. Another is to kidnap someone known to be doomed and bring them safely to the future, leaving a simulacrum in their place to take the ordained fall without affecting said future.

In this case, travellers from a future bereft of people, the Earth’s population reduced to three million by war, are trained as “actors” to impersonate Herod’s murdering thugs and reproduce their crimes as noted by nano-drones previously sent back to observe. The actor “murders” the child and zips back to the future before the real murderer shows up and, seeing the baby already dead,  assumes one of his buddies had got there before him and simply continues the search for more newborns. This keeps perturbations of the time continuum to a minimum.

Until one trip when the actor can’t remember his lines and doesn’t know what to do. This is a problem with potentially catastrophic results. Got to think fast, that guy.

Being pedantically minded, one event threatened to knock me out of the story, namely a quote from the second book of Maccabees. The Maccabees fought against the Seleucid Empire in wars which predate the time of King Herod. But then I remembered that Herod had some claim to the Hasmonean throne (which derived from the family which led the revolt) and that Maccabee politics remained front and centre as late as his own time such that a women quoting scripture is not an anachronism. And besides, the story is a kind of alternative history. Further, it’s been more than half a century since I read the Books of Maccabees so I am certainly no expert. I should cut this entire paragraph, but it is an example of how I react to what I read so I choose to leave it in. Weird, eh?

Naturally I lack the courage to mention Herod died four years before Jesus was born and the whole story of “The Massacre of the Innocents” is a myth. But, hey, a powerful myth, very much imbedded in Western culture even today.

Kudos to Karl El-Koura for taking an entirely original approach to said legend and injecting a dose of questions concerning the ethics and morality of interfering with the past. The nature of the legend already a heady whirl of depraved morality, so a master stroke to add complication upon complication. Well done.

The Move – (Poem) by Shilpa Kamat


If you lived in a binary star system, how would that influence your religious beliefs?


Some very interesting possibilities, and a particularly interesting problem like one of ours, but less easily solved.

John Barleycorn Must Die, And Your Little Dog Toto, Too  – by Jon Lasser


Funny how questions of mortality crop up in a generation-starship as much as they do back on earth.


A character-driven story with much to do with love and other emotions, including fear. Has a down-to-earth feel to it, almost pastoral in fact, yet the underlying crisis is pure hard science of a type I’ve never come across before. It seems to imply that interstellar travel is risky because of a very simple, almost silly reason impossible to guard against or compensate for. Don’t know if the concept is valid but it makes the crew’s nostalgia for where they started from all the more poignant. They haven’t given up, they might still succeed, but it depends on the same factor which created their problem. Talk about gambling. It’s all in the luck of the draw.

I think the hard science is brilliant, not only because it is totally original, at least in my reading experience, but also because it fully justifies the emotional state of the crew. Makes the story all of a piece with no loose ends.

Home is – (Poem) by Kim Whysall-Hammond


Never forget anything, if you know what’s good for you.


Very short, impactful poem describing one of those “Oh, shit!” moments of instant regret.

Ogres in the Mist – by Brian M. Milton


Two gnomes, one old and one young, have been ordered by their elven king to go deep into the forest to capture a young ogre. Something akin to a death sentence.


Clover, the old one, enjoys passing on tracking tricks to Cranesbill, the young, female gnome eager to see her first feral ogre. Awfully hard to avoid being stomped to death by an individual ogre, let alone a herd of them lurking nearby. Still, returning empty handed would mean an automatic death sentence, elves being so cruel and all. By what miracle can their mission be accomplished? Amazingly, Cranesbill comes up with an idea that might just work, but only if absolutely nothing goes wrong.

Another ending which took me by surprise. Unexpected, yes, but it suits the mood of the story. I rather like it.

Routine Resupply – by Heather Fraser


The observer on the alien planet with a hostile environment was sent on a one-way trip to observe and report till she died. Like her predecessor.


Apart from the previous observer’s unfinished reports and weird clay sculptures he’d left scattered about, nothing to prove he ever existed could be found. No problem. The new observer enjoys maintaining her renewable resources and talking to her pet fungus. But then a resupply capsule with more than she had contracted for arrives.

Isolation, be it in an arctic base or a freighter or a spacecraft, is always an exercise in small group dynamics capable of going awry. Simpler to send just one person. Or is it?

This is one of the elephants in the room often ignored (especially back in the day) in speculative fiction adventures taking place on other worlds. Never mind the alien peril, how does one cope with oneself? We all face that problem. Being alone on an entire world merely exacerbates the conundrum.

The observer in this story had worked out an excellent routine. Now it is threatened by the unexpected. Everything depends on her boosting herself into a paradigm shift. Can she do it? Can you? Could I? We root for her as she wrenches her thoughts about in a stop/start haphazard manner to break out of her mental rut. This is what makes the story so entertaining.

Basically, an old-fashioned space exploration venture with perceptive nuggets of insight into human powers of rationalization and obsession. Quite a lot of fun, intellectually. Enjoyable.


Editorial: Passages – by Diane L. Walton

I was struck by a reference to a notorious writer who apparently publishes other people’s books under his own name, sometimes not even bothering to change the title. Never mind the threat of A.I. to writers’ livelihoods, this guy doesn’t even need AI to rip people off. He must be very old-fashioned.

“The Darkness at the Edge” – Author Interview with Cale Plett by Roberta Laurie

I have a BFA in Creative Writing. Cale has a BA in Creative Writing. I avoided studying English grammar and literature because my High School experience taught me this would destroy my desire to write. Cale embraced studying English and this increased their desire to write. I spent years doing mindless jobs to free my brain to write deathless prose which never got anywhere. Cale wrote for academic journals which led in turn to grants which enabled time enough to write a great deal, eventually leading to working with a literary agency and a number of publications. In hindsight, the path I chose perhaps not as practical as Cale’s. Beginning authors take note.

Cale also has many things to say about the true nature of horror in a less than tolerant small-town environment. In a sense, lurking monsters are always present and liable to erupt at any moment. A reminder that “monsters” aren’t real as such, they are metaphors for what lurks in human nature as unleashed by societal fears and pressures. You want to write about monsters? Study people.

“Beyond an Artist” Interview with Robert Pasternak – by Cat Mcdonald

Fascinating stuff. I was particularly struck by his technique for the cover of this issue.  Prismacolour pencil crayons on black paper. I love the look of it. Hmm, I have no talent, but I’ve always liked bright colours. Maybe I should get me… hmmm…

I also like his statement that artists today must be “beyond an artist,” because “you also have to be a promoter, a content provider, an editor and videographer, composer, performer, an intellectual property. [Salvador] Dali was beyond an artist. You need that persona.”

Yes! Dali did what needs doing in terms of self-promotion and had loads of fun doing it. A great role model! Good of Pasternak to point this out.

In addition, he has many interesting things to say about the need for abstract/surrealist art.

Comic & Bot: “Signing Today” & “ACME Robo Fido (A.R.F.)” – By Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk

As usual, both comic and bot are charming, endearing, and fun.


This issue features something original in every story, be it premise or approach or telling detail. I like that. In essence every story and poem stirs my sense of wonder. The very reason I read speculative fiction in the first place.

Check it out at:  < On Spec #127 >




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